Question: "What is the recapitulation theory of the atonement?"
Answer: Throughout the history of the church, people have tried to come to grips with exactly how Christ saves us. What was it about His life and death that makes it possible for our sins to be forgiven? Evangelical Protestants rightly discern that the New Testament places great emphasis on Christ’s death on our behalf as paying the penalty for our sins, making it possible for believers to be forgiven (see Romans 3:21–26 and 2 Corinthians 5:21), and hold to what is often called the substitutionary view, or vicarious penal atonement (the penalty was paid for us by Christ).
However, in the history of the church there have been theologians who emphasize other aspects of what Christ did and how we can be saved in light of it. Irenaeus emphasized Christ as the second Adam who is victorious where Adam failed and undoes what Adam did. This view became known as the recapitulation theory of atonement.
The recapitulation theory states that the atonement of Christ has reversed the course of mankind from disobedience to obedience. Christ’s life recapitulated all the stages of human life and in doing so reversed the course of disobedience initiated by Adam.
The English word recapitulate carries with it the idea of “going over again.” In this sense, Jesus went over the same territory that Adam went over; only He did it in perfect obedience. The English word comes from a Latin root word that means “head.” Thus, in Christ, the human race is given a new head. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). The idea of recapitulation is also found in Romans 5 where Adam is the head of the condemned and Jesus is the head of those who are made alive.
The idea of recapitulation has scriptural warrant, as we have just seen. Reformed theology emphasizes that we are saved not only by Christ’s death but also by His sinless life. Our sins are imputed to Christ, and He paid the penalty for them. His perfect righteousness is imputed to us.
There is no problem with using recapitulation to describe one element of what Christ has done for believers. The problem arises when recapitulation becomes the sum total of all that Christ did for believers, and in some systems, such as Eastern Orthodoxy, recapitulation is held in opposition to the idea of substitutionary atonement. This eliminates a crucial component of the biblical doctrine of the atonement and of the gospel itself. Even in the biblical passages where recapitulation seems to be presented most forcefully, the sacrificial element is also present.
“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22) is found within the context of the gospel’s sacrificial element: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (verse 3). Romans 5:13–19 is perhaps the longest passage on recapitulation in the New Testament, but it is prefaced by Romans 5:6–11, which emphasizes the death of Christ on behalf of His people: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Furthermore, it is unclear if recapitulation is truly the emphasis in Romans 5:13–19. Verse 18 does emphasize Christ’s obedience, but it seems to view a single act of obedience as paramount: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” That “one righteous act” is none other than Christ’s “obedience unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
In Christ, the human race is recapitulated, that is, given a New Head—the One who was successful where Adam failed. However, this in and of itself was not enough to save lost humanity. The penalty of sin had to be paid, and, for that, a perfect, sinless sacrifice was needed.